Ghost in the Shell (2017)

ghostintheshell.rev Ghost in the Shell  (2017)    Paramount/Sci-Fi-Action    RT: 107 minutes    Rated PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content, some disturbing images)    Director: Rupert Sanders    Screenplay: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger    Music: Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe    Cinematography: Jess Hall    Release date: March 31, 2017 (US)    Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Carmen Pitt, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Anamaria Marinca, Tawanda Manyimo, Yutaka Izumihara, Michael Wincott.

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 A lot of fuss has been made about the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in Ghost in the Shell, a live-action version of the Japanese manga that was previously made into a well-regarded anime film in 1995. The makers have been accused of whitewashing the story. I say it’s much ado about nothing. I have a great argument in support of the casting decision which I’ll get to shortly.

 Live-action remakes of animated movies are nothing new. Some of them have done very well. Right now, the number one movie in the world is Beauty and the Beast, a retelling of the 1991 animated classic with real actors and sets instead of ink-and-paint illustrations. It’s actually very good. However, others have fared poorly like 2005’s Aeon Flux with Charlize Theron. There’s also a live-action version of Fist of the North Star that I never bothered with. What I heard about it wasn’t good. Anyway, Ghost in the Shell could have gone wrong. I half-expected it to. I’m pleased to inform fans that it’s not a disaster. It’s quite good, in fact.

 ghost in the shellWhile scenes from the anime flick are recreated, this Ghost in the Shell is NOT a remake. It tells a different story. In this version, the antagonist is a hacker/terrorist targeting employees of Hanaka Industries, the corporation that created Major (Johansson), a cyborg with a human mind. She’s told that she’s the only survivor of an attack on a refugee boat that left her so gravely injured, the only way to save her was to transfer her mind (“ghost”) into an artificial body (“shell”). A year later, she’s a valued member of Section 9, an anti-terrorist task force led by Aramaki (Kitano, Battle Royale). She’s efficient but reckless, just like any fully human action hero/heroine. The opening scene of Major jumping off a building, turning invisible and crashing through a window to take down a team of killers is redone very nicely. The geisha robot assassins are a cool added touch.

 The terrorist behind the attacks is a guy named Kuze (Pitt, Funny Games) who tells Major not to trust Hanaka. Of course, they’re hiding something from her. Everytime she asks about who she was, they evade her questions. The head scientist, Dr. Ouelet (Binoche, The English Patient), explains that the auditory and visual hallucinations she’s presently experiences are merely “glitches” and can be deleted with her consent. Still, Major has some big questions about her existence. Is she human or machine? Do memories make her more human? Does have a soul or is she just programmed to think so? Pretty heavy stuff, no?

 Okay, I promised to explain my argument in favor of Scar-Jo’s casting. Here goes. Since her body is merely a shell created by the corporation, isn’t it possible that the body she was born with is that of an Asian girl? One of the dominant themes in Ghost in the Shell is the nature of self-identity as it relates to the correlation between mind and body (cyborg or human). Does Major’s physical appearance really make a difference? If you want a less cerebral argument, a character is introduced about midway through that more or less confirms Major’s previous identity.

 The visuals in Ghost in the Shell are awesome. It takes place in an urban metropolis with holographic advertisements the size of skyscrapers. The city has a somewhat shabby appearance when viewed at street-level. I wouldn’t call it a dystopian future but it doesn’t feel very hopeful either. There’s an emptiness to this crowded world; it’s kind of interesting. The line between real and artificial is blurred; most people are cybernetically enhanced. Even Major’s all-human partner (Asbaek, Lucy) gets a new set of eyes, the result of a work-related injury. I have to admit to being impressed with director Rupert Sanders’ (Snow White and the Huntsman) vision of the future. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I saw Ghost in the Shell in 2D but it seems like it would look cool in 3D.

 Ghost in the Shell has many strong points. It has an intelligent storyline with thematic echoes of Blade Runner. Maybe the writers dumb it down a bit for American audiences by having the terms “ghost” and “shell” explained early on and repeatedly reminding viewers that Major is the first of her kind. It doesn’t really matter. The score by Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe is perfect. Ghost in the Shell has a good amount of action. Johansson, despite NOT being Asian, is great in the lead. She’s talented, gorgeous and kicks ass as good as any action hero male or female. What’s not to love? Pitt is also good as the primary antagonist who might not be the villain he initially appears to be. He certainly seems to understand Major’s existential crisis. The rest of the cast does a fine job but none of the other team members are fleshed out as fully as Johansson’s character.

 Ghost in the Shell is a good movie. That’s the bottom line. It should please fans of the original source and sci-fi in general. It’s a big step up from last week’s lame Alien knock-off Life. Unlike that big bore, there is evidence of intelligent life in Ghost in the Shell. I like the animated version better but this live-action incarnation is still something to see.

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